That’s how the mountain boys tell time.
August 25, 2014
THE SUMMER TENNESSEE SUN had baked the ground beneath Bob Duke’s feet as he ambled out of the Great Smoky Mountains, following a winding dirt road that led him out of the high country and on toward Johnson City.
The dust on his face had turned to grime, and sweat cloaked his forehead. His throat was dry, his spittle tasted like dust, and the cardboard suitcase in his right hand felt as heavy as it had been all week. But then, it was always heavy when Bob Duke hadn’t sold much, and the last seven days had been a total waste. He was a drummer. He was a peddler. Nobody was buying.
Nobody in Lick Skillet or Loafer’s Glory had any money to speak of, and Bob Duke was beginning to feel like the frazzled end of a misspent life. Maybe, he thought, all of the extra dimes and dollars had run downhill to Johnson City. That’s what Bob Duke was hoping anyway. But then, hope was about all a traveling salesman had when he found himself walking from place to place in the 1920s, trying to keep a full suitcase of wares, notions, and doodads from dragging the ground.
His legs were tired, his shoulders were slumping, and the white in his shirt had turned a pale shade of yellow. Bob Duke set the suitcase on the ground beside him and looked out across the timbered mountain ridge, turning a hazy shade of blue in the far distance. He had no idea where he was. He had no idea how much farther he had to walk before finding the city limits of Johnson City. He had no idea what time it was. He had traded his gold watch for a meal earlier in the week. The steak was tough, but it didn’t matter. The gold watch wasn’t gold anyway. Bob Duke certainly couldn’t tell the time by looking at the sun, which dangled from a high sky like a worn gold dollar above his head.
In a pasture just beyond the fence line, he saw a farmer milking a lone dairy cow in the splintered shade of an oak tree. Duke walked to the edge of the barrow ditch and yelled, “Excuse me, sir.”
The farmer barely turned his head. “You talking to me?” he asked.
“What do you want, then?”
“Am I on the right road to Johnson City?”
“You’ll get there if you keep following your feet.”
“How far is it?”
“About thirty minutes if you don’t wear out.” A faint grin creased the farmer’s face. “About half a day if you do,” he said. “And if you get lost, you won’t make it all.”
“Any chance of getting lost?”
“The road knows where it’s going.” The farmer shrugged. “It’s been there before.”
Bob Duke wiped the grime away from his sunburnt eyes and asked, “Could you tell me what time it is?”
“Two-fifteen.” The farmer had not hesitated.
Duke shrugged his weary shoulders and turned back toward the dirt road. The sun had not moved at all by the time he walked into the downtown streets of Johnson City. He glanced up at the clock on the courthouse wall. It said two forty-five.
And a strange feeling began to work its way like a thorn into Bob Duke’s mind. The farmer had been right. He had said the time was two-fifteen, and it had not taken Duke more than thirty minutes to reach town. The farmer had known what time it was, and he hadn’t had a watch strapped either to his arm or dangling from a chain.
Duke was puzzled, then perplexed. He had traveled the high country of Appalachia for more than a year now, and he had long been amazed at the secrets of the mountain people. A rainbow in the evening was a sure sign that fair weather would follow, or so they said. When the trees split their bark in winter, they knew it would be a dry, hot spring, and crickets singing in the house foretold of a long cold winter. When a baby boy was born in the wane of the moon, they swore, the next child would be a girl, or maybe it was the other way round. March held the fisherman’s moon, and the hunter’s moon hung in a November sky. Now some farmer up on the side of the mountain could actually tell time without a watch.
How in the Good Lord’s name did he do it? Was it the angle of the sun as it dangled in the sky? Was it the length of the shadow that fell away from the oak above his head? Was it the way the sunlight filtered through the leaves and struck the rock at his feet. Surely the birds didn’t know, and the squirrels were barking about matters more serious than merely passing the time of day.
Mountain people did indeed have their secrets. Bob Duke knew he had to find out what this one was. He wouldn’t be able to sleep or travel on unless he did. Duke hid his suitcase behind the trash cans in a back alley behind the mercantile store and headed back up the mountainside.
He found the farmer. The farmer hadn’t moved. He was still milking his cow, or maybe it was another cow. But he had not moved.
“Excuse me, sir,” Bob Duke yelled.
The farmer barely turned his head. “You talking to me?” he asked again.
“Yes, sir.” Duke rolled up the pale yellow sleeves on his shirt and said loudly. “I don’t know if you remember me, but I was up here a while back and asked you what time it was, and you told me, and you don’t have a watch or anything. I was wondering if, perhaps, you could show me the secret of your mountain ways. I’ve always heard that mountain people can do things other folks can’t do, and I’d like to be able to do it, too.”
The farmer turned around to face him, pushing his straw hat back on his head, and scratching his chin. He started to grin, then thought better of it. “So you want to know how I can tell time.”
The farmer sighed. It had already been a long day. But then, most of his days were. “Then jump across that barrow ditch,” he said.
Bob Duke leaped the ditch.
“Get down on your hands and knees and crawl under that barbed wire fence.”
Bob Duke eased his way beneath the rusting barbs.
“Now come on over here beside this cow.”
Bob Duke hurried across the barn lot.
“And sit down on this stool.”
The farmer stood, and Bob Duke eased down onto the top of a wooden stool where the splinters had been worn down to a nub. The cow moved. Duke was too tired to be startled or care.
“Now put one hand on this teat,” the farmer said.
Bob Duke did as he was told.
“And put the other hand on this teat.”
Bob Duke reached for the other nipple and squeezed it.”
“Now,” said the farmer, “if you look over the hind end of that cow, you can see the clock on the courthouse wall in downtown Johnson City.”
Bob Duke’s shoulders sagged. His back ache. The muscles in his legs tightened. A cloud swallowed the sun. There was no shadow dangling from the oak limbs above his head and no touch of light reflecting off the rock beneath him. Time marched on. On the mountain, it stood still. Maybe it always had. The walk down the mountain seemed a lot farther than the last time he made the trip.
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